We have been hearing and reading in recent times about how the India - Pakistan contest is bigger than the Ashes series. I am not going to get into a debate on this even as I admit that more cricket fans would be interested in an India - Pakistan match instead of the Ashes for obvious reasons. But the fact remains that there is always something special about the latter.
England and Australia have been playing for the urn for over 130 years and there is something very significant about tradition, about history. And whatever the detractors might say, there is still a lot of interest in Test cricket though it may not be reflected in attendances at the stadium. However even this is not true of an Ashes series for it is one contest that has a very high spectator response as can be evidenced from the ticket sales for the 2013 edition which gets underway at Trent Bridge on Wednesday.
An Ashes contest can never be low key. For one thing, given the importance and what it means to the participants, the mind games reach a feverish pitch. Secondly the on field action somehow almost always matches the hype. Tests between the sport’s two oldest rivals have produced a lot that is special and it must not be forgotten that only as recent as 2005, the Ashes series produced one of the most memorable contests of all time.
It wasn’t just because it was close with England winning 2-1 to regain the urn that seemed to be Australia’s forever for they had won the previous eight contests; the standard of play on both sides reached dizzy heights. The sportsmanship spirit too reached new heights and the photograph of Andrew Flintoff consoling Brett Lee after England had won an Edgbaston thriller symbolized the best traditions of sport.
Australia got more than ample revenge for this reverse when they handed England a 5-0 drubbing Down Under in 2006-07. But England regained the Ashes at home in 2009 even as it was clear that the great Aussie teams under Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh had broken up.
However no one could have bargained for the result of the last Ashes series in 2010 – 11 which saw England emerge triumphant with a 3-1 verdict. What’s more all the three defeats were by an innings – a humiliation Australia had never suffered before at home.
So can England make it three in a row for the first time since Mike Brearley led England to such a feat in 1977, 1978-79 and 1981? I suppose that would be the main interest in the series in which England start firm favourites. The Aussies are still in the process of rebuilding and as their 4-0 rout in India earlier this year proved, this process still has a long way to go.
England on the other hand besides winning a series in India just before the Aussie tour – the first time they had done so in 28 years – are riding a wave of success. From the time they took over as the No 1 ranked Test team in 2011, England have done little wrong except for going down to South Africa and losing their No 1 status. Recently they have dropped to No 3 a little ahead of Australia. But that could be a bit misleading, for England right now are playing good cricket, are playing at home and man to man are clearly better than the Aussies.
However no Aussie side can be underrated for they are traditional fighters. No team is more dangerous than Australia when cornered or when written off. One remembers how in 1964 an emaciated Aussie team arrived in England with giants like Neil Harvey, Richie Benaud and Alan Davidson having recently retired. A look at the team and they were given no chance against England and one newspaper had the headline "England, the Ashes are yours."
But displaying true grit, Bobby Simpson’s young and inexperienced side won the five-match series 1-0 to register one of the great upsets in Ashes contests. Twenty five years later, another unheralded Aussie team under Allan Border came over and proceeded to rout England 4-0 in the six-match series.
So can Michael Clarke and his team repeat the feat? At the moment it doesn’t look likely despite the timely change in coach on the eve of the series with Darren Lehmann taking over from Mickey Arthur. Simply put, their recent record leaves a lot to be desired and a look at the squad exposes several weaknesses.
It is inexperienced and the few established stars like Clarke, Shane Watson, David Warner and Peter Siddle will have to carry a lorry load of responsibility. The batting and in particular the bowling does not inspire confidence especially when pitted against a well oiled English all round machine.
The hosts on the other hand are a well settled unit, the batting and bowling is strong and they have been strengthened by the return of Kevin Pietersen. James Anderson is at the peak of his powers as a swing bowler, Graeme Swann is the world’s best spinner and the batting line-up is as solid as ever.
The Australian bowling will have their hands full as they try and get the better of Alastair Cook, Ian Bell, Joe Root, Jonathan Trott, Pietersen and Matt Prior. The batting too could be under severe pressure while facing up to Anderson and Swann with England also having the luxury of choosing any two from Stuart Broad, Tim Bresnan, Graham Onions and Steve Finn.
In the ultimate analysis the Australians start as underdogs and it will be a surprise if they are able to prevent England from winning the Ashes a third straight time.